Gene Kelly’s vintage home: Open house, open hearts! (1950)
Interior decorators? Don’t need ’em. Swimming pools? No, thanks. The Gene Kellys have their own design for living.
By Marva Peterson, Modern Screen magazine
This is the Kellys’ home, and on these pages are the first pictures ever taken in it.
The out-of-towners in the sight-seeing bus leaned forward — expectantly. “Ladies and gentlemen,” their guide was saying. “…the next house on the right, the one with the red door and the bank of geraniums, belongs to that famous dancer, Gene Kelly, and his family.”
“I don’t believe it,” whispered the Shriner’s wife from Shreveport, La. “Why, it’s no bigger than our own place back home.”
Her husband grinned. “Half of what this guy says is baloney,” he stated flatly.
Actually, the house did belong to Gene Kelly, and the busload of tourists were obviously disappointed at this “excuse” for a movie star’s home.
From the outside, the Kelly’s two-story house is like that of many middle-class American families, living in good residential districts.
It’s within walking distance of the public schools, not too far from the movies, and only three blocks from a marketing center. The nearest swimming pool is a couple of houses away, and the car in the garage is a 1941 Ford.
There are two things, though, which distinguish this house from the others on the block.
First, there are usually six to twelve cars parked in front of it. These cars belong to the friends who drop in regularly for talk and movies, and on Saturday nights, for charades.
Sundays, the volleyball net strung across the back yard gets good use, and a path is beaten from there to the Kelvinator refrigerator in the den where cold drinks are stored.
No one ever rings the bell or knocks on the Kelly door. People just walk right in. A butler would either be laughed out of the household, or converted into a volleyball star.
A few weeks after she’d supposedly attempted suicide, Judy Garland dropped by and sang for three hours.
“She was never prettier, never in better voice,” says Betsy.
A little while after Judy arrived, Leslie Caron, the French ballet dancer who’ll star with Gene in “An American in Paris,” drove up and asked for a coke. She, in turn, was followed by Vera-Ellen, two writers, [then] Vincente Minnelli and Katharine Hepburn.
The second distinguishing factor about the Kelly house is the telephone. It never stops ringing. In one fifteen-minute period, there are often as many as eight calls. Actors phone Gene for advice about little theater groups.
The Veterans’ Hospital asks Betsy to work an extra day. Little Kerry’s friends invite her over for dinner. Press agents try to convince Gene that he needs a public relations man.
The Kellys always answer the phone themselves, and they never say, “Wrong number.”
Gene Kelly’s house: How he and his wife chose the home
Superficially, Gene and Betsy appear to be an average young couple. Actually, they’re too talented to be average. Yet they prefer a simple house in an unpretentious street. They have sound reasons for this choice.
While Gene was in the Navy, and stationed at a submarine base in New London, Conn., Betsy was searching California for a place he could come home to. She didn’t have anything particular in mind, but she was sure of one thing: they would own the house outright, without a mortgage.
“Both of us came from mortgaged homes,” Betsy says. “And we weren’t going to go through life the way our parents had, trying to meet the payments on the house.
“I didn’t want to start our post-married life saddled by debt. I limited myself to the only three houses in Beverly Hills that we could afford to buy with our savings.”
Betsy’s selection narrowed down to two, when she decided that a hillside wouldn’t be a safe place to raise Kerry.
Her ultimate purchase was based on the fact that she was buying from a doctor — Betsy feels doctors can be trusted — plus the fact that she was double-checking everything with Gene on the long-distance phone.
“Is the place termite-proof?” Gene would yell across the continent.
“I had the FHA assessor check everything.”
“How about the taxes?”
“Not bad,” Betsy would answer.
“What about storage space? Are there lots of closets and bookshelves?” (Gene was dreaming of the day when he could spread out his belongings in something larger than a footlocker.)
“Lots of closets,” Betsy shouted back, “also a basement, three old-fashioned bathrooms, and four bedrooms.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Lieut. Kelly said. “Tell the man to wrap it up. We’ll take it.”
Betsy did. “Without Gene there, though,” she says, “I had plenty of doubts.”
One of her main misgivings was the drab appearance of the three downstairs rooms. They were painted a depressing green. Then, there were some French doors that made the living room look dated.
Before she flew east to meet Gene in New York, Betsy hired a slew of painters to scrape the dull green off the woodwork and restore its natural color. She told them to paint the ceilings and walls a light beige with some good Dutch Boy paint, and then she ordered a clear red cotton bouclé carpet for the living room floor.
“The problem of the French doors,” she says. “I left for Gene.”
Many movie stars hire a very chi-chi decorator to furnish their homes. As a result, the finished interior reflects only the personality of the decorator.
This isn’t true of the Kellys. All the color schemes, every piece of furniture, every single accessory they own was selected by both of them.
The result today is a comfortable, informal house with emphasis on books, art objects, records, and flexible seating arrangements.
“We moved into the house with nothing but books.” Betsy recalls, “books, a trunk full of Gene’s dancing shoes, and a mattress. We spent six months deciding how to furnish downstairs. We spent another six months trying out ideas.”
The idea they experimented with in the living room was to keep the walls, ceiling and upholstery a neutral shade, and to let accessories provide the splash of lively color. It turned out to be an excellent idea.
The painting above the fireplace, for instance, is a carnival scene jammed with action and vivid colors. It’s one of six paintings that Gene gave Betsy the first Christmas they moved into the house.
Another item is the terracotta Indian water jug they picked up on a motor trip one summer. Spotted at random throughout the house are framed playbills, family photographs, and the artwork little Kelly executes in school. These accessories make the room interesting and warm.
The furniture in the house follows the same motif. With the exception of one chintz-covered chair, all the living-room places are covered in the same beige cotton sham.
There’s a place for a conversational group around the fireplace or set along opposite walls for charade teams. Some of Betsy’s furnishings come right out of Sears Roebuck & Company, and she doesn’t care who knows it. The rugs, which Betsy vacuums with her Hoover once a week, are a product of that world-famous mail-order house.
On a level slightly lower than their living room, the Kellys have a combination bar and barbecue. Originally, this recreation room was separated from the living room by the French doors mentioned earlier. These doors did nothing but cut off the view of the backyard and shorten the living room. However, there they stood.
One evening Betsy, Gene, Lois, his secretary, and Stanley Donen, the Metro director, were sprawled on the red rug. They were wondering how to curtain the glass doors, when Gene suddenly jumped up and said, “Heck, I’ve never liked French doors, anyway.”
In no time at all, he had taken out his tool box, unscrewed the door hinges and removed the doors, to everyone’s immense delight.
Later, a carpenter installed waist-high bookcases between the bar and the living room. Betsy bought some low, deep-cushioned couches, had them covered in navy plaid, and backed them against one of the bookcases.
Gene built a rough-hewn lamp table out of an old board he found behind the garage. And because the floor covering in the bar is Armstrong linoleum tile and the only uncarpeted floor surface in the house, it’s Gene’s favorite spot for breaking in new dance routines — “thinking with his feet,” Betsy calls it.
The Kelly dining room-den is another combination of two rooms merged into one. Both are furnished with early American reproductions.
The same blue plaid wallpaper put out by Thibault covers both rooms. Unbleached muslin curtains are Dutch-hung over the window.
Richard Whorf, the talented director-actor-painter, executed a primitive landscape that hangs on the dining-room wall. He signed it “Grandma Whorf, 1871,” because the Kellys have always yearned for but never owned a painting by Grandma Moses.
Of all the rooms in his house, Gene loves the big, uncluttered bedroom best.
Professional decorators will tell you that blue is too cold a color for a bedroom, but the Kellys don’t care. When the California sun seems unbearably strong and heat waves bounce off the rest of the house, the bedroom of soft gray-blue is always cool and restful. For Gene, who loves to sleep late, it’s ideal.
One bedroom wall is covered with Colonial-type drawers and cupboards. More cupboards line another wall, and along the third side is an early American school bench. The single headboard behind their twin beds is made of antiqued wood and actually is a series of bookshelves.
Over the years Gene has had lots of ideas for improving the family’s living standards. When news of his Sunday afternoon volleyball games spread, and he needed more athletic equipment for his guests, Gene converted the back hall closet into a series of sporting goods shelves.
Now he has enough equipment stored away to supply a small YMCA, and he calls the closet the “Sports Palace.”
He converted his den closet into housing for his phonograph and record albums, and had a carpenter build a tall, shallow magazine rack for all the periodicals he never has time enough to read.
Betsy, too, is always on the lookout for decorating tricks that will fit in with the Kelly style of living.
The style is contemporary, the mood is American. And the living is easy.